The Spousal Benefit is one of the more confusing aspects of the Social Security retirement benefit system. It’s vaguely familiar that the spouse with the lower wage base is eligible for 50% of the higher wage base spouse’s benefit, or something like that…
How is the Spousal Benefit actually calculated?
Calculating the Spousal Benefit
Here’s how the Spousal Benefit is calculated:
First of all, the Spousal Benefit is based upon a differential – between 50% of the other spouse’s Primary Insurance Amount (PIA) and his or her own PIA.
So how does this work? Let’s look at an example:
Let’s say there’s a couple, both the same age with a Full Retirement Age (FRA) of 66, and the wife has a substantially lower wage base than the husband. At age 62, she files for the reduced benefit based on her own record, from a PIA of $800. Her benefit is reduced to $600 due to filing early.
Later on, when they reach age 66, the husband’s PIA is $2,000 – and if he’s filed for benefits, she is now eligible for a Spousal Benefit. The benefit is based on the differential between 50% of his PIA ($1,000) and her PIA ($800) – even though her benefit is reduced since she filed early. The differential between those two factors is $200 ($1,000 minus $800), and this is then added to her reduced benefit for a total benefit of $800 (COLAs have been eliminated from this example to keep it simple).
Let’s adjust the example: Same couple, only now the wife waits until FRA to begin drawing her own benefit, at the same time as the husband. Now her Spousal Benefit will still be $200 (the differential between 50% of his PIA and her PIA), so her total benefit will now be $1,000 (her PIA of $800 plus $200 differential).
Now, what if the wife is younger? As long as she’s at least age 62, she can begin receiving the Spousal Benefit once her husband applies for benefits. It’s important to know though, that if she decides to file for the Spousal Benefit prior to her FRA, the Spousal Benefit factor is correspondingly reduced (as would be her own benefit if she filed early). Instead of 50% of her husband’s PIA, at her age 62 the factor would be reduced to 35% of her husband’s PIA, and then the differential calculated as explained before. At age 63 the factor would be 37.5%; at age 64, 41.7%; and at age 65 it would be 45.8%. This reduction is calculated as 25/36ths of one percent for each month before her FRA up to 36 months, plus 5/12ths of one percent for each month more than 36 before FRA. The reduction factor is then taken against the original 50% factor to determine the actual percentage of the husband’s PIA will be received.
And lastly, what if the wife has not filed for her own benefit? Again, as long as she’s at least age 62 and her husband has applied, she can file for the Spousal Benefit based upon his PIA – and if she hasn’t filed, there is no differential between her PIA and his factor-applied PIA, so whatever factor (50% if she’s at FRA as well, as low as 35% if she’s at age 62 as explained above) is applied to his PIA and that will be her Spousal Benefit – until she files for her own benefit, at which time the calculation will be based on the differential between the two PIA’s (with whatever factor applies to his PIA).
Keep in mind that the examples above denoted the wife as the spouse to receive the Spousal Benefit – but the roles could be reversed, depending upon the circumstances.
I hope this clears things up a bit. It’s a very confusing component to understand, but this should have helped to clear things up – let me know if you have any questions, as always!